Earlier this month, Arvada police officer Dillon Michael Vakoff was shot and killed after responding to a domestic disturbance on the Denver and Wheat Ridge border. He was only 27 years old.
Vakoff’s death is yet another tragic reminder that despite a much-needed focus on excessive force employed by police officers, police officers also still put their own lives on the line when responding to community calls for help.
In Colorado last year alone, multiple officers were killed in the line of duty. This included Eric Talley, a 51-year-old Boulder police officer who responded to the King Soopers mass shooting on Table Mesa, and another Arvada police officer, Gordon Beesley.
Notably, Talley left behind seven children ranging in age from 7 to 20, highlighting how the impact of police officer killings — just as with the killing of any citizen — has ripple effects into their families and the community at large.
Both the killing of police officers, and the killing or injury of citizens by police officers, are wrong, of course. Offering this balance of perspective is a necessary reminder to us all that even in the most contentious politicized matters, two wrongs don’t make a right.
As discussions of criminal justice reform are rightfully set to intensify in the coming legislative session, acknowledging the validity of both wrongs — each perspective often being held by opposing political groups — holds the potential to open the door for new kinds of conversations.
Yes, I’m talking about criminal justice reform activists and police unions finding consensus on stronger gun safety laws.
While criminal justice reform activists generally support strong gun safety laws, law enforcement has more historically held a mixed stance.
Yet as more police officers are killed in the line of duty with firearms, it’s time for police unions to revisit their opinions on the very weapons that are being wielded to kill their members.
Without a doubt, it’s in every police officer’s best interest if fewer citizens are armed to the teeth — a sentiment that happens to be shared by the public at large. Arguments suggesting that so-called “good guys with guns” are the answer fall flat as those instances are rare, according to data.
While enacting stricter gun safety laws is likely to help reduce the chances of police encountering lethal weapons, it may also serve as one of many necessary measures to help ratchet down extreme violence in policing over time by reducing fear in police responding to calls.
In this light, activists willing to place a stronger narrative on police safety while advocating for gun safety could additionally find themselves a unique opportunity to build unlikely allies for criminal justice reform. This would offer benefits to both parties:
First, criminal justice reform activists that prove themselves a more worthy ally for the police forces they seek to change may find those same police officers in turn more willing to discuss meaningful criminal justice reforms by way of support versus feeling targeted.
Second, police unions wary of change can come to earn a seat at the table by finding rare common ground with criminal justice reform activists on gun safety laws. This is not to suggest there would be less reform with police involvement — surely, activists will see to it that is not the case — but it could help to smooth the course and lessen the anxiety for police officers who will be responsible for implementing such changes.
Third, more gun safety laws are likely to be passed, likely helping to reduce overall deaths, violence and the risk of escalated policing out of fear. Certainly more training will be necessary on racial bias and more, but gun safety laws would be one of many wins for everyone.
While politics today is a culture of rage, once upon a time it was a culture of seeking allies. We can only hope that this month’s tragedy might rekindle the spirit of finding such hope in the name of reducing community violence.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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